Saturday, 7 February 2015

Maori learning in Physics: Part 1ish

Today I'm going to try to follow on from yesterday's post. I've been trying to find resources to help me out with today's post, but this has proved to be difficult. I'm not sure how to improve Maori outcomes in Physics, and I'm not sure anyone is. There are some good ideas about improving Science in general, but I think Physics specifically hasn't received a lot of attention in this area. As far as I know. After about 3 hours of searching the internet. Look, I know I'm not an expert, but this interests me and I have to write about something.

From what I can tell, Physics as a subject suffers from several problems when it comes to Maori learners. First, it is content heavy. Second, it is culturally blind. Third, physics classrooms frequently have very few Maori learners at all anyway.

The problem with being content heavy is that the pedagogy leaves very little room for student voice. There have been strides made in looking at open inquiry and better pedagogy, and here I feel I should mention my favourite handy little book Five Easy Lessons (a play on the title of the famous Feynman lecture collection Five Easy Pieces). These approaches, however, typically remain teacher-focussed with some room for experiments where students can hopefully explore, but more likely confirm, the theory. There is no room for students to own their learning, because the pedagogy remains heavily assessment focussed. Students can choose to learn what they like, as long as it is examined content. At the Physics teacher's day last year I attended a workshop to learn how to assess Modern Physics in a project format rather than a test, and the discussion during the workshop convinced even the person taking it that a test is a better format, mainly because it is easier to mark. Obviously, this is a problem which affects all students, not just Maori learners. While other students can feel included in the learning community, however, Maori students are often on the outside looking in. Which brings me to my next point.

Physics teachers do not realise that physics is a culture as well as a lump of content. It is a culture that stems from European empiricism, and remains very European in its outlook. It comes in part from belief in the scientific method, in that the only things which can be said to be true are those backed up by experimental data and can be described in mathematics. At the same time, there is a semi-mystical element to physics culture, which comes across in a great deal of popular science. Often we talk about 'beauty' in mathematics and physics, 'wonder' at the universe. Now, all this isn't to say that I think this culture is a bad thing. I consider myself part of it, and have often found beauty in symmetry and wonder in cosmology. The difficulty comes where there is a tacit denial that this is a culture which students must become part of, or at least be aware of, if they are to really 'get' physics. Physics teachers get it, and have a reputation for being zany (or boring, but I think the boring ones don't 'get' it either). Without it physics is a series of tasks, mastering looking up formulae on a sheet. So we hope that some students will just 'get' it eventually, and they will be the successful ones, the ones who really enjoy the subject and will be eager for more. The thing is, this is much easier for someone who has already grown up in a culture which is compatible with physics. In order to really engage physics students, I think we need to acknowledge the culture of physics and explore it. We need to make it accessible to Maori culture, by perhaps incorporating some elements from it, but at least by acknowledging this difficulties Maori students face.

My time is up; looks like this weekend is going to be Maori themed. I like it.

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